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tv   Great Decisions in Foreign Policy  PBS  September 3, 2010 8:00pm-8:30pm PST

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>> an old favorite method of diplomacy, special envoys, are back in vogue. the bush administration used them sparingly, but president obama has appointed special envoys to deal with everything from climate change to the closing of guantanamo bay. but with special envoys come special problems. >> the dger of, of having only special envoys is that you, is that you get mixed signals, you get wires crossed. but at the end of the day, i think that's a risk worth taking. >> will the obama administration's reliance on these special negotiators advance u.s. goals in places like afghanistan and the middle east, or are there too many cooks in the kitchen? next, on great decisions. >> in a democracy, agreement is not essential, but participation is.
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join us as we discuss today's most critical global issues. join us as we discuss today's most critical global issues. join us for great decisions. [instrumental music] >> great decisions is produced by the foreign policy association, inspiring americans to learn more about the world. funding for great decisions is provided by the carnegie corporation of new york, the starr foundation, shell international and the european commission. great decisions is produced in association with the university of delaware. >> and now from our studios, here is ralph begleiter. >> welcome to great decisions. i'm ralph begleiter. joining us to discuss the role of special envoys in u.s. foreign policy are charles dunbar, professor of international relations at boston university and 2010 great decisions briefing book author,
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and michael fullilove, director of the global issues program at the lowy institute for international policy in sydney, australia and a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy at the brookings institution in the united states. welcome to both of you. >> nice to be here. >> you know, i'm curious why we talk about special envoys. what is it that makes a special envoy special? why do we need them in foreign policy? why do they keep coming back in foreign policy? charlie? >> i'll make a historical point, first, that i think is important. which is that american diplomacy, for much of our history, was conducted by special envoys because we had no real diplomatic structure. we, of course, had ministers overseas, but very, very small embassies and a tiny state department. and therefore, the tendency to use a special envoy was understandable. our diplomacy, after all, began with special envoys during the american revolution
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and continued that way, ah, throughout much of the nineteenth century. >> so it was lack of expertise, essentially in the government, that made you go outside the government and choose a special envoy? >> that's correct, in my opinion. >> and michael? >> well, i think that's true, but we've also seen in the twentieth century, ah, the number of special envoys really increasing. and i think the reason is that presidents like special envoys. they enable them to deliver a candid message, they're good for public diplomacy, they strengthen presidential control, they strengthen presidential authority, they usually don't require senate confirmation. on the other hand, a lot of people don't like special envoys. a lot of professional diplomats, ah, think that they're trespassing on the turf of the state department, and it's certainly true that special envoys can corrode the effectiveness and the moral of the department. so, there's a little bit of controversy on state department, on, on envoys, but presidents like them they're useful instruments of foreign policy. >> why do they strengthen presidential control, as you said? >> because the president, ah, then has a relationship,
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a direct relationship, not always throu the secretary of state, with the person making decisions on, ah, on big issues. so it, it, they become instruments of presidential control of national security policy. >> and that's different from having a secretary of state appointed by the president, but i guess confirmed by the senate, so there's shared, some shared control there, you think? >> it depends how they're structured. i mean, um, some special envoys report up to the secretary of state. sometimes though, presidents are trying to make an end-run around their secretary of state. maybe they don't, ah, have full confidence in their ability to do it. maybe they're frustrated by, um, their lack of action on something. so, they will appoint someone that they know personally in whom they, ah, have special, ah, special confidence. >> we spoke to some other, ah, experts on this topic, as well, about the history of special envoys. let's hear what they have to say. >> before the united states had an established diplomatic courier, remember john adams, benjamin franklin and others, were special envoys and it's
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something that presidents and secretaries of state have used, um, throughout the, throughout our history. so it's nothing new. um, and people use it, ah, leaders use it for when they want to get everything focused on one or two very specific issues. >> sometimes, historically, special envoys have been used to convey a message. ah, sometimes they're to bring back information. um, if they are to have an operating role, so it's not just a communication role, but to try to solve problems, the real challenge is twofold, one, ah, the trust and confidence that they can develop in the parties. and second, their own connection to their own institution and government so they can get things done. >> envoys do no better than anybody else if they're not backed up and supported. we've had several of those recently in the middle east all who have passed from close memory. >> the danger of, of having only special envoys is that you get mixed signals, ah, you, you get wires crossed. but at the end of the day,
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i think that's a risk worth taking. >> michael, you've talked about some of the negative aspects or perceived negative aspects of special envoys. it strikes me as a little bit of a tempest in a teapot. people who are watching might be saying, "who cares whether it's the secretary of state or whether it's a special envoy?" but there are distinctions as you, as you mentioned. is it a tempest in a teapot or is it a significant difference whether you appoint someone special to do some diplomacy, or whether you rely on the institutional, ah, arrangements for doing that? >> well, one of president obama's envoys, ah, once said to me, "an envoy is not an answer, an envoy is just an instrument." and i think that's an important thing to bare mind. i mean, what matters more than what instrument you use, is what's your policy on climate change or afghanistan or the middle east peace process? but that doesn't mean that the operational questions aren't important. and i think what, i think some of the interesting comments there, um, give us a sense of some of the lessons that presidents should employ when they use special envoys.
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i think using envoys is good, but you have to be disciplined about the way you do it. you don't want to, ah, employ to many envoys. you don't want to appoint envoys to appease domestic constituencies, which some presidents have been guilty of. you want to employee them sparingly on important, substantive missions, on well defined, ah, missions, and when you have the right person who has the right personal qualities for a particular mission. under those circumstance, i think envoys add a lot. >> let's talk for a minute about george mitchell who now is the special envoy for the middle east and previously was a successful special envoy in northern ireland and succeeded in, ah, ushering in a new era, really, ah, between the factions, among the factions in northern ireland. ah, what is it about george mitchell that, does he have some special magic, ah, some special characteristics that people think, ah-ha, he solved northern ireland, he can solve the middle east? charlie? >> well, i think there's, he first of all, is a consummate diplomat.
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ah, he is discrete... >> wait a minute. he was a u.s. senator. senators aren't diplomats. >> i think diplomatic skills perhaps go, ah, cover a wider range of the, of human relations than simply diplomacy. ah, senator mitchell spent a lifetime negotiating things, making things happen and was very good at it and certainly in the, um, in the senate, ah, was someone who, ah, had to maintain good relations with everyone. i think he was, was an excellent choice. >> and that's, i guess i just want to get at this question, and you raised it well, mitchell has a kind of weight of his own. he, he brings to the table a history and a background and a capability that not everybody else can bring to it. is that a special, is that a characteristic of a special envoy, michael, that they've got to have a kind of weight of their own? >> well, i think what, i think it's a characteristic of many of the best special envoys.
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what, and i agree with charlie, what mitchell brings is the personal stature of a former senior politician in the united states, and he adds that to the gravitas that is went, that is lent to him by his appointment on the middle east peace process. so he has something else that, ah, even with the greatest respect of, you know, a full ambassador, a career foreign service official doesn't have. he's got to deal with difficult people, difficult politicians who understand power and mitchell understands power. we saw that when he stared down the hard men of northern ireland and forced them really, ah, wedged them and forced them to sign the good friday agreement. so, those are the advantages that, that mitchell brings. but of course, that doesn't make the problem any less intractable and it's, it's, it still goes back to the, the kind of policy that president obama wants to run on the middle east peace process. the question is, is mitchell a good instrument for that? i think he is. >> and that, makes me ask
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the following, which is, ah, what if mitchell, and i'm not accusing him of anything, but you wouldn't say that mitchell has any special expertise in the middle east. it's not as though he has spent his life in arab-israeli issues and there'd be many other diplomats who could say, "oh, i've done my whole career in the middle east and i know the arabs well, i know the israeli's well." so, maybe that expertise is not necessary for a special envoy? or charlie, you disagree? >> well, i would say first of all, about senator mitchell, that he's a very quick study. i would say secondly, that he has had, now, ah, the better part of a decade working on the problem on and off. he is, after all, the author of the, of the mitchell report that begat the quartet and begat the, a major way of dealing with the, um, the dispute between, ah, israel and, and, ah, primarily palestine, but also its neighbors. >> okay, ah, michael? >> well, just to add one point, there's one other qualification that senator mitchell has,
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and that is time. you asked before, ah, why would a president be using a special envoy rather than a secretary of state? a secretary of state cannot devote all her time to a problem as complicated as the middle east peace process. so by bring, for some of these very complicated, difficult, regional, or thematic problems, you can bring in a special envoy who has some of the weight and qualifications that charlie has mentioned, and you can put them full-time to work on that job. >> and they can get to know the players as well, at that point, and the players can feel as though they've got somebody at the other end of the phone they can call who is familiar with who they are and where they're coming from. >> yes, and i just think one more point to add there that is, is crucial on the potentially negative side of the problem, and that is, that if there is an ambassador of consequence in the, or ambassadors in the problem that you're dealing with, it's very, very important for the special envoy to have the ability to work, ah, well
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with those, ah, ambassadors. >> let's take another minute to listen to some other views on this from some of the other experts we've spoken with. >> now, the special envoys that the obama administration has and senator mitchell and dick holbrooke in particular, you know, are people who, i think, by nature of their personality and their reputation, are pretty well connected into the system. so they should be able to have the follow through. >> in general, i think they've been helpful. i think senator mitchell has been a great benefit in the middle east, and it's important to have somebody there talking to all sides, shuffling back and forth. embassies often tend to be, ah, prisoners of their countries and reflect the attitudes of their individual capitol, while envoys are more likely too back and forth, to be less subject to that kind of a, a captive mentality. >> i think there's probably a number of special envoys that's too many. um, but at the moment, i think when you look around the world and you consider the middle east, afghanistan
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and pakistan, darfur, getting energy from central asia out into world markets, now these are things that i actually think, ah, are well suited to the special envoy because they're able to focus attention on a specific problem, get resources and mobilize the institutions, not just at the state department, but all the institutions of government. >> secretary clinton is showing that she knows there's a lot of other things to do, ah, can make use of the special envoy to allow her to focus on a great many other issues. there is a tendency in administrations to have everybody want to run, ah, to the main issue. it's like seeing a bunch of small kids play soccer where everybody runs to the ball. ah, that doesn't get you either good soccer or good government. >> is it a fair criticism that was just raised that there can be too many cooks in the kitchen and we've got too many special envoys and they'rall nning around doing their own thing? does it matter, really, how many there are? >> i think it matters and you actually saw at, at the far end of the clinton administration,
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you had really too many envoys. you had an envoy, some envoys appointed for the wrong sorts of political reasons and i think that, that can be damaging. but i think if you look at president obama's situation at the moment, i think there's two reasons why the number of special envoys he's appointed is appropriate. the first is the scale of the problems he faces, bloody conflict in iraq and afghanistan, nuclear programs, um, difficult adversaries, all sorts of, ah, really difficult problems. so, i think he needs as much diplomatic assistance as he can get. the second reason is, he has made engagement with the world a theme of his foreign policy. he is, you've seen the comeback of diplomacy after, um, after, in particular, with the first term of the bush administration. whereas under president bush, he wasn't really, ah, wedded to--he really didn't see diplomacy as a highly valuable tool, and you saw that president bush, especially in his first term, cut down the number of envoys. so i think the scale of the problems obama faces
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and the faith that he puts in diplomacy, means that it's right that he calls on a good number of envoys. >> i'd like to ask you both to comment for a minute on, on richard holbrooke's role as special envoy in afghanistan and pakistan, ah, but i'd like to do it in the following context. we've talked about george mitchell, clearly a prominent personality, but he wasn't, ah, i think a top candidate for secretary of state. holbrooke, at least considered himself a top candidate for secretary of state and i think obama did consider him. is there a danger in having a special envoy who was almost t secretary of state, or is that a good thing to have someone who was so highly regarded that even though he didn't make the cut for the top job, is nonetheless now being used in a diplomatic fashion? charlie? >> well, there's a great deal to be said about ambassador holbrooke. he's a man of enormous, ah, personality, certainly, and a man of enormous accomplishment. there was an article published in the new yorker about him written by george packer
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in september, um, of 2009, ah, in which, ah, which is entitled "the last mission," and i think that, um, probably, richard holbrooke, like most of us, not getting any younger, ah, realizes that this is such an enormous challenge that it is worthy of his, of his very considerable skills. i think he probably looks back to the first major, ah, diplomatic military problem that he dealt with, which was vietnam, and i think he's thinking this time that he's got to do everything he can to get it right. ah, there's a lot more to be said about, about richard holbrooke, but i think we have put a formidable character into the, into the job. while i'm up, i might simply comment that, everything that i understand is that he has maintained a first rate relationship with his friend,
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secretary clinton, and, ah, i do not, have not seen indications that there are, is trouble on that front. >> there's always that suggestion that maybe there's a clash of egos. ah, michael, is that ever a problem with special envoys? >> all the time. ah, i mean it's a problem with, with politics and diplomacy. of course, they're huge personalities. holbrooke is an enormous personality. um, and i think a lot of eyebrows were raised when he was appointed because his reporting lines were about as straight as a bowl of spaghetti. it wasn't clear, i mean, he, as a diplomat he, he goes where the power is. so i think there was concerns about that. but it appears, as charlie said, that he's being really scrupulous about working through the secretary of state. and it's also i think the case that secretary clinton is not a retiring figure. i mean it's pretty hard to do an end-run around someone of, ah, secretary clinton's stature, someone with an independent power base, ah, someone who president obama had to, you know, really went to and ask to do this job.
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so, i think, i think the, you know, to your question, i think the personalities have been managed so far. >> and, ah, there seems to be a contrast to me in something you just said from what we were talking about earlier. which was, you raised the idea of a special envoy having that direct pipeline to the president. pickup the phone, the president answers at the other end. i'm, i'm that close to the president. if you're going to cut a deal with somebody in the field, they know that they're cutting a deal with the president. but now, both of you have just said, "no, no, no, richard holbrooke is working through the secretary of state." and so the parties in the field might say, "well, why isn't, ah, why isn't hillary clinton here dealing with this and why am i not talking to the president of the united states?" is that a contradiction or you don't see it that way? michael? >> well, i, i don't think they say that to ambassador holbrooke's face. >> probably not. >> look, i don't think so. i think, um, i mean, afghanistan and pakistan is such an enormous proem that there are a lot of big, ah, characters involved. it's not just the president and the secretary of state and ambassador holbrooke. it's general petraeus.
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it's general mcchrystal. it's ambassador eikenberry. there's a lot of figures involved. there's more then enough room for all of them. i think, it would be unwise if, um, if ambassador holbrooke were not bringing secretary clinton in on the loop, and every indication is he is. >> charlie. >> yeah, i can't, ah, ambassador holbrooke is a fascinating figure and i need to say right away that ambassador holbrooke is violating every rule of bureaucracy 101. he has, apparently, taken over a large segment of the, um, of the bureaucratic establishment in washington simply by the force of his personality. he has only brought 30 people in directly, that was the case last fall, ah, and, um, that he brought 30 people in according to the article by george packer, um, and, um, but he has, ah, put himself directly into
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the a.i.d. bureaucracy, and of course the, the state department bureaucracy. it's a tribute to his, um, to the force of his personality that he has been able to accomplish that. there may be some people who wish that he wasn't playing quite such a big role, but there doesn't seem to be much chance that they're going to be able to do anything about it. >> and, ah, that illustrates the point that special envoys also operate in a variety of different ways in different situations and presidents often choose them for different situations because of their methods of, of conducting their diplomacy. let's hear one more time from our other experts. >> any time you use an envoy, it will raise a challenge of, well, for example, in the case of the middle east, ah, what everyone is doing on the middle east peace process, how is it connected with the economic development issues? >> you can't solve afghanistan unless you solve, ah, pakistan as well, for example. and, i think an envoy into a place like that can be very, very useful.
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>> with holbrooke, you clearly have support. with ambassador holbrooke, ah, you clearly have the support of the president and there is a particular utility because of the interrelationship of the afghan and pakistani issues, but separate countries so that one ambassador doesn't easily link. >> i think you'll see an increasing amount of traction on, ah, for our diplomacy on darfur because of the special envoy and because there's still so much interest in the united states in this question. >> we started out early... did you want to comment on that? >> i do want to comment, ah, very briefly on ambassador grossman's point. um, this, i'm hoping very much that we do get, ah, get traction on darfur. when the announcement of the administration's approach, ah, back in the, in the fall that, ah, they were going to, that we were in affect, urging the parties to the conflict to go home, was very controversial
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at the time that it was announced. that, um, some of the parties simply did not feel that they could go back home without being, um, subject to ah, to atrocities on the part of the people who'd been committing atrocities in the past. so i do want to say, i hope very much that that worked out for the best. >> ah, since you're mentioning darfur, let's talk for a second about, ah, general gration. ah, he's a, yet a different type of special envoy. he's got the military background to him. ah, why would you appoint ah, someone with such a strong military background in a situation like that? michael? >> well, i think, um, that appointment had a couple of things behind it. one was, that, ah, obviously dimension to the conflict. the second is that, um, ah, general gration had a, had a long background with president obama, with candidate obama. ah, worked for him closely on those sorts of questions. so i guess there was ah, there was a, a personal link. ah, just picking up
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one other comment if i can, ralph. we talked a bit about bruised egos in the state department and, and people getting a little upset. i think in the scale of things, you know, it doesn't really matter. um, these problems are so difficult and so intractable that whatever human resource arrangements suit the president and enable him to achieve the best results, i think is what the world would want the united states to do. i did a lot or research on franklin roosevelt's use of envoys. ah, roosevelt, ah, sent envoys everywhere. he was addicted to envoys. in fact, he wanted to extend it from the diplomatic sphere to the divine sphere. he wanted to appoint envoys to, ah, the catholic church and to islam before the state department, put the markers on it. but when i did that research, i went back into the state department archives and found all sorts of, um, nasty little notes from, ah, foreign service officers who were angry that this was occurrin and of course you can completely understand it. but the problems are too big to obsess too much about those issues.
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you've just got to find the person who has the right qualifications to do the job. >> michael, having done the research on special envoys, maybe you could comment, ah, a final comment on the importance of direct connection to the president. >> it tters. it matters to the president. it matters to the american foreign policy bureaucracy. it matters to the people, ah, that the, ah, the envoy is dealing with. um, and, and i think, you know, to end on a positive note, i think the advantage or the, the, ah, the positiv element of, ah, of president obama's use of envoys is that, we have a president at the moment who really believes in diplomacy and wants to reach out to the world and thinks that sometimes interests can be managed so that both sides get something out of it. and, diplomacy can't solve everything in this world, but it's a good start, and if you don't have diplomacy, if you don't have presidential involvement in diplomacy, ah, then you give away one of, one of the united states' key tools. >> michael fullilove, director of the global issues program at the lowy institute for international policy in sydney, australia
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and non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy at the brookings institution, thanks for being with us. and charles dunbar, professor of international relations at boston university, thank you as well for being with us on great decisions. >> thank you very much. >> and thank you for watching. we'll see you next week. i'm ralph begleiter. >> to learn more about topics discussed on great decisions, visit our website at great decisions is available on dvd. to order, visit or call 1-800-playpbs. funding for great decisions in foreign policy is provided by the carnegie corporation of new york, the starr foundation, shell international and the european commission. great decisions is produced in association with the university of delaware. next time on great decisions
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in foreign policy... >> relations between the u.s. and china in recent years have focused primarily on one thing, the economy, but both countries have agreed to expand high level talks to include issues of strategic importance: china's military buildup, north korea, taiwan and climate change are now all on the agenda. how will dialogue between the u.s. and china shape the coming decade? >> next time, on great decisions shape the coming decade? >> next time, on great decisions in foreign policy. [instrumental music] closed captions by captionlink
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